Is being creative just like flipping on a light switch, or does it take something more? Photographer/trainers Chris Orwig and Julieanne Kost think it takes a lot more, and they provided a plan during their class “Cultivating the Creative Spark,” part of this year’s Adobe MAX, which took place in San Diego, November 2-4. It’s the annual conference from Adobe Systems, the company that brings you Photoshop, Premiere Pro, Illustrator, and other creative software.
Orwig is a celebrated photographer, author, and instructor for lynda.com and Creative Live. Kost, named by Fast Company as one of the 100 most creative people in business, is an Adobe Digital Imaging Evangelist. Together, they are a creativity brain trust.
Their presentation focused on areas that creatives could look at in their lives to both remove roadblocks and rev their engines.
Orwig started out by pointing out that although both he and Kost were photographers, authors, and instructors, they had different approaches to igniting their creativity. “Our hope is,” he said, “that by sharing both of our perspectives, it will help you clarify your own.”
He asked, “How many of you have come away from something inspired, but then asked yourself, ‘Now what?’ We want to give you some of that ‘now what.’”
Find Your Why
“When you see something that really inspires you, pause, breathe,” Orwig suggested. “Instead of just snapping the picture or clicking the heart button, ask yourself what is this picture saying to me. Ask yourself ‘Why?’ That can make all the difference.”
Orwig and Kost also emphasized getting feedback on your work. They recommended you ask other people why they like one of your creations. Evaluating, journaling, sharing, and responding to feedback gives you insights into your own creative process. Knowing your internal and external “why” for what you do, they said, is the first step.
Kost emphasized our ability to define our future. She said that although we are products of our past, our futures are ours to define. But we all have a limited time, so how do we make informed decisions about how we will spend our time?
“I realized,” she said, “that every business has a mission statement. So why don’t I as an individual have my own personal mission statement?”
Orwig added that knowing your “why” can lead you to your manifesto. Kost and Orwig shared their personal mission statements and suggested exploring how corporations create their mission statements and adapting that to your needs.
Kost summed up the topic by quoting Lily Tomlin: “I always wanted to be somebody. I should have been more specific.”
Orwig added, “Writing a mission statement seems daunting. It will never be perfect. Just do it.”
Time and Reduction
“It takes a lot of energy to be creative,” Kost said, “but, once you write your mission statement, you can figure out what those other things in your life are that are distracting you.”
Kost argued for reducing the chaos in your life so you can focus on your art. She bragged that she has empty drawers in her house, never leaves dirty dishes in the sink overnight, and that every time a new object comes into her house, an old one goes out.
Orwig pointed out that you don’t need to follow his or Kost’s solutions, but that you do need to find your own way to cut through the clutter. He invoked the proverb, “Teach us to number our days that we may be wise.” He then suggested, “I think we can add to that to say ‘Teach us to number our days that we may be creative.’”
Kost added, “When it comes to time, weave your projects into what you have to do. Five minutes here. Six minutes there. You almost never get to go away for five weeks to work on something.”
Orwig summed up, “With reduction we aren’t saying to be minimalist. Reduce and simplify, but don’t do it so much that you remove the poetry from your environment.”
To achieve balance, he recommended the book Wabi-Sabi: For Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers by Leonard Koren.
Limits and Process
Both speakers suggested carefully defining your projects and working backwards: knowing what it is you want out of your project before you begin. Kost used the example of a wedding photographer who goes in with a shot list so he gets all the required photos, but doesn’t let that stop him from moments of impromptu creativity.
She continued, “Are you shooting for a gallery show or do you want to make a book out of the assignment? These are completely different sets of requirements for your images. Define why you are going on a project so you don’t get to the end and realize you missed something.”
Orwig pointed out how Kost’s aerial and Antarctica photography doesn’t look like anyone else’s. “She brings her why and her manifesto,” he said, “to define what she wants out of a project.”
Process and Momentum
They emphasized the importance of knowing yourself in order to define your process. Kost said that she is a morning person and doesn’t do good work at four in the afternoon, so she arranges to do the most demanding tasks in the morning. She also said that deadlines motivate her. Other people work best in the middle of the night and hate deadlines. Their recommendation: figure out what works best for you and stick to it.
Kost said, “I’m pragmatic and linear thinking so I set goals. But I wasn’t achieving them, so I had to figure out what was wrong with my goals,” and joked, “Obviously, it couldn’t be me that was wrong, it had to be my goals.”
She explained that her goals had not been realistic, so she wasn’t achieving them, and when that happens you get into a downward spiral. That undermines your momentum.
Kost said that your goal shouldn’t be, for instance, to make an artistic composite photograph every week. Things can get in your way. But if you give yourself a time limit and say, I am going to work on composites for 10 minutes a day, that’s doable and you build momentum.
She said that achieving small, incremental goals allows you to feel that bigger things are possible.
Practice and Play
Orwig shared a technique he learned when he was in fourth grade. His teacher would hand out a page with just a couple of shapes on it, such as a square and a couple of dots. Then she would tell the class to draw, incorporating those shapes. Orwig said he still uses this technique today.
When he is traveling with his daughter, he’ll pull out his journal, draw something, and hand it to her. She adds something to the picture and hands it back. They go back and forth, creating a crazy picture with a story to go with it.
Kost shared a trick she uses. “Instead of doing something until you become it,” she said, “become it, then you have to do it.”
As an example, she said that if you want to be a good swimmer, you must get up and swim every day. She explained, “If you say to yourself, ‘If I get up and swim every day, a year from now I’ll be a good swimmer,’ that is much harder than saying, ‘I’m a good swimmer, so I get up and swim every day.’
“So, if you get up and say, ‘I am a photographer’ – actually I prefer ‘lens based artist’ – you just get up and do your work. You have no choice.”
Restoration and Collaboration
Kost and Orwig agreed that you can’t work all the time, you have to leave time for restoration.
Orwig said, “For me it’s the ocean. When I come back from swimming in the ocean, is my work better? Yes. And we all have those places we can go, whether physical or mental, where we can take a break and restore. No one will ever pay you to do it, no one will tell you that you should do it, no one knows the indicators of when you should do it, but you and I do.”
Kost said you should try something new every day. There’s a saying, she said, “that it’s very difficult for a statue to change its pose. So, try something new.”
Lastly, Orwig and Kost emphasized collaboration. They suggested finding someone to talk to about your work. Kost cautioned to be wary of social media. “I don’t want feedback from someone who only looks at my work on their phone for a tenth of a second in the supermarket. I noticed that people like mostly sunsets and puppy dogs, but that’s not what my work is about.”
They agreed that you should not get feedback from just anyone, but a person or community whose work you admire.